Theodore Dreiser was known as a pioneer in realism or naturalism as a writing style. Rather than creating fictional
characters that move through a contrived plot, his characters seem in the present, relating what is happening to them at the moment, what they are
thinking--almost like a stream of consciousness flow. Sherwood Anderson has written the introduction included in the Dover edition, and he says Dreiser
doesn't resort to "trick" writing. "Everyone knows there are no plot short stories in life itself and yet the tradition of American short story writing
has been built almost entirely upon the plot idea."
And because so much of Dreiser's writing is mental conversations playing through the minds of his characters, there is a brutal, brazen honesty about the plight of the human condition, often thoughts that people would tremble to voice aloud. This aspect can certainly invoke a discomfort to readers.
Because Dreiser spent much of his childhood in poverty and hardship, those aspects have worked their way into his writing, too, often juxtaposed with those who are well off. And even more than money, it is the social aspect--the drudgery of the working class pitted against artistic liberalism and those with the courage to take risks and be free. Add to that the façade exhibited by those who have gained social prestige because of their wealth, yet lack wit and creativity. All these aspects combine in different mixes in the following stories.
In Free, we know that Mrs. Haymaker might be dying, and that Doctor Storm will consult with another doctor if she is no better by tomorrow. But after the doctor leaves, most of the rest of the story is simply thoughts that runs through Mr. Haymaker's mind. And the truth is, he would feel little sorrow if she did die. In fact, he longs to be free from a marriage that has been miserable to him, though his wife has never had an inkling of the dislike her husband has felt toward her--how he had grown apart from her after their engagement, but did not have the heart, or will to break it off.
We witness his thoughts as he looks back on his life as a failure, held back, he feels by the falsity of his marriage. His wife, Ernestine, placed all life's importance on money and social standing, never on ideals. Mr. Haymaker is a successful architect, a creator, an artist of sorts, but too weak-willed to ever stand up to his wife. Then little Elwell arrived, whom he loved more than anything. The child made the misery of his marriage less painful. But Elwell died at age two. Wesley and Ethelberta were born--how he despised that name--but his connection to them was never the same as to Elwell.
He also hated the people in his wife's social circle--shallow and vulgar, they were chosen as friends only because of their money. She never understood her husband. Worse yet, she was never even aware that she was so unconnected with him:
". . .he could not sympathize with her ambitions, could not see that she had anything but a hopelessly common-place and always unimportant point of view. There was never any flair to her, never any true distinction of mind or soul. She seemed always, in spite of anything he might say or do, hopelessly to identify doing and being with money and current opinion--neighborhood public opinion, almost--and local social positions, whereas he knew that distinguished doing might as well be connected with poverty and shame and disgrace as with these other things--wealth and station, for instance; a thing which she could never quite understand apparently, though he often tried to tell her, much against her mood always."
He finds himself wishing that she would die, so desperately does he long for his freedom, but than he reproves himself
with guilt, thinking that his very thoughts, his mental energy, will cause her death.
Nigger Jeff is about a reporter, Elmer Davies, who gets sent to cover a story on a possible lynching of a black man who apparently assaulted a rich farmer's daughter. The reporter is none too thrilled--the whole idea of lynchings or hangings made him sick. He arrives in the town and seeks information, then goes to the house of the farmer to inquire about the daughter. Soon the information is made known that the sheriff has caught Jeff, and is taking him to jail, but a group of the townsmen followed by Davies go after the sheriff. Knowing what the men have in mind, the sheriff stops his wagon and gets out, telling the men to turn back, and threatening to arrest them, or even shoot them if they approach. Fear sends them away.
By now Davies is growing weary of the whole deal, and just wants it to be over so he can write his story. They reach the town, and hear that the sheriff has Jeff in the basement cell being guarded. So they approach the sheriff's cottage, led by Jake, brother of the girl supposedly assaulted. And while he acts bold, when the sheriff threatens him, he lacks courage to follow through. Davies decides to wire his story, thinking that nothing will come of it, that it is over.
But it isn't over, and soon a band of men returns, headed by the father of Jake and the girl who was assaulted, and they have a plan to overcome the sheriff.
While this one has more of a "plot" than Free, it still has that quality of stream of consciousness--following the thoughts of the reporter as he sees the event to its conclusion.
In The Lost Phœbe, we meet a simple elderly rural couple, not well-off, but having what they need. Phœbe has died, leaving Henry on his own after forty-eight loving years of marriage. The place is in ruins. We go back in time and learn a little of their life together--how the children left and now care little for them, how they ran the farm and the orchard and fields. When Henry got cranky, Phœbe would threaten to leave him. Now at age seventy, Henry is alone. Though he does receive offers of help. Little by little the few visitors fall away, leaving Henry to barely care for himself.
Then one night as he lay in bed with moonlight pouring in, he looks through the door to see Phœbe leaning over the table. He gets up, but realizes it is only his coat, thrown over a chair, combined with the moonlight and a lamp. But soon after, he sees her again, and begins to wonder if she hasn't returned to him. On a third night, in a dream, she touches his head.
But then something changes. He starts to wonder if she didn't just leave him after all, as she threatened to do so many times. She didn't die, she is just gone waiting for him to come after her. And he does. He begins walking, for miles, stopping at old friends houses, asking if Phœbe has been there. The townspeople humor him--the only other option would be to put him in an asylum, and that they can't do. So they give him food and help him when they can, and he wanders farther and farther away. Now he realizes it is too much trouble to go home, so he packs a plate, coffee pot and utensils all tied together, along with his cane, and for seven years he wanders, covering three or four counties. And at last, Phœbe does come to him. This is a sad, poignant, and bittersweet story, yet it will probably bring a smile, too.
The Second Choice is about a young lady, Shirley, a working class woman who lives at home in a typical working class suburban neighborhood. Her parents, and all the families all down the street live the same--the men work, earning comfortable enough wages, the women are housewives who cook and clean and sew and take care of the children. Shirley is dating Barton, whom she thinks she will marry. Though she doesn't love him much, he is kind and sweet, has a good job and will make a good husband. Then she meets Arthur, who sweeps her off her feet. But he has dreams--something most of the people in her neighborhood do not have, or if they did, they abandoned them for safety and security. Gradually she eases Barton out of the picture, but knows in her heart that Arthur will leave one day. He speaks of traveling, but she is never part of the plan. Then it happens, what she has feared and expected. But should she return to Barton? She knows he will take her back. She struggles, then gives up hope that something better will come along.
In Married, a budding pianist has married an Iowa farm girl, and when they return to the city, they find they have little in common. Again, it is that sense of working class conservative values pitted against freedom and risk.
These five stories are quite unique. Dreiser certainly has his own style, a bold and courageous expression of that which many would prefer to keep hidden concerning human interaction and deep-seated truths. At the time of this writing, this is the first of his works I have read, and found them fascinating. I look forward to reading more.
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